TDi: Type Design Summer Course Day 1

The following series of articles is my attempt to record the intensive type design summer course at TDi in the University of Reading. For the sake of speed I’m spellchecking posts with British dictionary, so pardon my British.

The first day was essentially filling in our heads with lots of data. I especially liked the history of typography and learning about the context and the conditions for each particular period when certain technological or cultural changes emerged.

Western Type and Typography with Gerry Leonidas

Garry Leonidas was the first lecturer with the Western type and typography lesson. He showed us just a fraction of the much larger collection of manuscripts and printed material from medieval age till today. I picked up a couple of thoughts related to web design.

Navigation / annotation with colour is nothing new. Scribes were using it before printing was invented, because the ink for handwriting was equally “expensive”, whether it was black, red or blue. For instance, using colour for highlighting important paragraphs dates from that time.

Because in medieval age there was only one book and that was the bible — there was no need for book navigation (headers, footer, page numbers). Everyone already knew where the things are in the book.

Transitional typography dating around 1450–70 established serifs that we know today. In that sense typography is very conservative. BTW, books from that period still miss navigation elements.

The use of space and typographic differentiation (e.g. with a typographic scale) is a direct answer to limitation of difficult process of multicolour printing.

Drop capitals are replacement for something that became very expensive — hiring an illustrator who might not know latin at all — to draw decorative letters on a printed page.

Mid 16th century in France, Louis XIV (not exactly sure was it him or Louis XVI) was very wealthy, so typographers developed book navigation system and more generous spacing because they had virtually unlimited resources and enough time to do it. Typeface of that time: Garamond.

Up to 1806. the printing equipment was wooden and suitable only for a small scale production. In 1806. the first iron press was invented, so it was easy to print anything because the press was much stronger. The industrial revolution in England was developing rapidly, so printing larger formats — like posters and other advertising — began in 19th century.

Unicode is nothing new. In 1784 Edmund Fry compiled the Pantographia, a book that contains all the scripts of humanity. The mission behind it was to spread Christianity by setting texts in local scripts for easier adoption.

The ideas that survived were proven to work, that’s why there are rarely truly new ideas. There are many bad ideas that simply haven’t survived.

Non-Lating scripts

Next up was an exercise of sorting out the mixed pile of glyphs from a couple of indian scripts, as well as another exercise with arabic scripts conducted by Dr. Fiona Ross who explained the history and the current state of the non-Latin scripts rounded with a couple of sidebar stories related to her work in Linotype. Fiona walked us through the department’s type collection which includes newspapers and working samples “not meant to be displayed” that were occasionally spiced up by the designer’s notes or comments.

We’ve learned about the hacks and the criteria from back then, that they used to reduce huge character sets of 800 glyphs to sets of 90 or so glyphs suitable for typesetting with Linotype machines.

The demand for non-Latin typefaces is huge and I can imagine that it must be rewarding to enable 300M people access to information through newspapers and voting on a local elections by designing a typeface they never had before.

Alverata with Gerard Unger

Last, but not least — Gerard Unger gave a talk on his process of research and bringing to live Alverata, the type family comprised of stylistic alternatives based on a chiseled type found on medieval churches around Europe. I learned that placing characters one inside the other in a Roman stone paragraph is called nesting.

Even though Gerard’s original argument that scribes sought for the variety in otherwise boring texts seems pretty legit — my theory was that some of the letterforms were simply lucky accidents. I can definitely imagine the scribe starting carving out the wrong letter and upon realising the mistake — simply modulating the form from the curved one to the angular one and vice versa to avoid throwing out the expensive piece of stone.

Whatever was the case, Alverata is quite impressive in variety.

The group

Talking about variety, there are around 20 people from 14 16 countries attending the course / giving lectures: Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Iran, India, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the UK and the USA. (I hope I haven’t left someone out.)

Most of the attendees are graphic designers. We have a researcher of 20th century information technology in China and me as a web designer.

Read next: Day 2

Marko Dugonjić is a designer specialized in user experience design, web typography and web standards. He runs a nanoscale user interface studio Creative Nights and organizes FFWD.PRO, a micro-conference and workshops for web professionals.

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